EMC-Squared

 

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Chapter 1

Getting Clearance

Marshal Station, this is EMCSS Spanish Train, we’re looking for clearance on a flight plan filed this morning, Mars / Marshal Stationto Venus / Nouveau Paris, over”, Vic Rimmer said as he manually pressed the [TRANSMIT] button.

“Good morning, Spanish Train, this is Mars / Marshal Station. The current time is zero-three-five-seven Zulu. We have your flight plan, and it has been received and accepted by Venus / Nouveau Paris. You are clear to depart; use Standard Departure Profile Charlie,” a chipper female voice responded. “Are you snapped in yet, VAR, over?”

“Neg, still out in the cold. I didn’t see a point to having to worry about decompression if I wasn’t going anywhere. Interog, is that you JTL, over?” he asked.

“Yep-yep, VAR, it’s one-hundred percent fer sure me! I always beg for backshift, and this is about as back in the shift as it is going to get this Sol.”

Vic chuckled. JTL was “Jacki Tikva Lagunov”, one of the Ship Traffic Controllers for this sector of Martian operations. As she’d said, she was a night owl and loved working the midnight to sunrise shift. More often than not, that was when Vic and his ship preferred to depart. He wasn’t the greatest pilot in the solar system, and he preferred to have few other ships around when he was on his way out.

He’d met up with her once, in person; she had a great radio voice and her perpetual cheer piqued his interest. So, he’d asked her out on a semi-blind-date. She was short where he was tall, and she was built for comfort where he was best described as lean. It turned out they were both from the same Earth-side country in the NAFTA-block. They had also both been powder bums in their youth with a resultant strong love of the Whistler Mountains area. They’d both moved off-world in their early twenties; she took a contract doing Traffic Control, and he was a cargo handler on the Earth-Saturn run. The ‘date’ had started and stopped with dinner, but they’d been chat-chums ever since.

“You said Charlie departure, right, JTL?” has asked

“Yessir. Your departure clearance is good for thirty minutes; if you aren’t off the pad by zero-four-two-seven, you will need to re-clear. Usual restrictions are in place; do not operate your Breaker Drive within six hundred and eighty megametres of the planet, and keep your Q-Tip above six kilometres; sonic booms at this time of night are bad, m’kay?” she chirped at him.

“Yeah, sorry about that last time,” he answered.

“Yeah, well, not as sorry as your bank account will be if you get hit with a fine. You’re lucky I managed to convince my boss it wasn’t you.”

“I still owe you dinner and a holo for that.”

“Yeah, you do. Now get outta my grid reference so you can make the bank to pay for it. I’m a steak and sushi kinda girl!” she said. He could hear her grin over the circuit, and he couldn’t help but grin himself.

“Roger that. I’ll be snapping in here in a couple minutes, and then spooling up the engines.”

“Understood. Ring me back when you are ready to disconnect from services and I’ll upload you your Exit Corridor and the four o’clock Bandit Report.”

“Thanks, JTL. You’re the best.”

“You bet your sweet tush I am, VAR. Ciao-ciao, out.”

*****

Snapping In

He headed back to his cabin. The access way continued beyond, to the lounge area and the five empty cabins that opened onto it. He hadn’t had passengers aboard in a while; he wasn’t very good at playing host, and the extra life-support costs just made it an expensive way to make money. Instead, he was hauling container cargo and mail.

He pulled off his shipboard coveralls, stripping down to his boxer shorts, and pulled on his Pilot Assistance Suit. The PAS was a very expensive and very complicated mesh of electronics, sensors, piezo electrics, cooling loops and comfortable fabrics. Most importantly, however, were the cybernetic control wires in each wrist cuff.

The control wires plugged into a matching set of sockets in each of his wrists, one socket on each side of the bundle of tendons. Those plugs were connected to a piece of technology the size of a vape-stick pack nestled near his kidneys, which in turn was wired directly into his central nervous system via his spine. He was plugged into the suit, and when he settled into to his flight chair, the suit would be plugged into the ship. He snagged the bottle of neuromuscular relaxants from it’s caddy beside where he kept the PAS hung up. He downed them with a swig of water from his hip bottle. He glanced inside the pill bottle; a few left, enough for a couple more runs before he had to pony-up the substantial pile of coins for more.

He picked up his helmet and made his way back to the bridge. He eased himself sideways into the control chair whose ergonomics vaguely resembled a twentieth-century dentist’s chair. It was cramped up here; the mass of controls, switches, LCD displays and status lights were shoved into as minimal an amount of space as possible.

From a Dirt-Sider’s prospective, he supposed the whole ship was cramped. More stuff was more mass. More mass was more complexity, and more cost. In the Indie/Tramp scene, Cost was the enemy. Complexity was Cost’s assassination-trained cousin.

So, everything was as minimalist and compact as could be managed. Food was “dry-pack / just add water”. Showers were once every three days for five minutes at most. Water was recycled via reverse-osmosis and ultra-violet light. Garbage and waste was all designed to be fed to the bio-reactor to generate the nutrient mix for the bacteria that handled the life-support loop. The ceiling was around fifteen centimetres above his scalp; jumping jacks were out. If he stood in the middle of his cabin and spread his arms his fingertips were within ten centimetres of the walls.

He’d been in space for nearly a decade now; this was comfortable. It was a level of comfort and design, however, that a historian might place somewhere between early twentieth-century adventure bush-flying and early twenty-first century deep-ocean yacht racing.

Except that nothing in either the twentieth or twenty-first centuries had ever casually moved at almost two hundred kilometres per second. That was the EMCSS Spanish Train’s cruising speed; she could do Earth to Mars in five days. Her “Hard Hundred”, that is the one-hundred day limit on her power reactor, put the Venus-to-Saturn run well within in range.

He keyed, toggled, and dial-twisted his way through the run-up sequences that were part of pre-launch. It took nearly ten minutes to do the first third, working swiftly and efficiently from memory; the remaining two-thirds took about two minutes once he was snapped in.

He shifted in his chair, grinding his shoulders against the backrest. The pressure helmet got pulled on slightly crooked, and then twisted to lock it in place while straightening it out. Lastly, he reached up, and dimmed the lights in the bridge compartment; having those on anything above half-brilliance was going to hurt like a meteoroid strike in a couple of minutes.

He opened a safety cover on the right armrest, unwinding the spring-spooled wires inside, and attached them to the right wrist of the PAS. He then repeated the process for the left. He paused for a moment with a finger over the blinking yellow buttons beside each wire-spool port. Clicking them simultaneously, his eyes instantly bulged and dilated wide, and his body stiffened. The impact shield on his helmet snapped down over the glass and the world evaporated.

There was a moment of almost nauseating lack of feelings, like being in a sensory-deprivation tank, and then he was standing on the landing pad, number Eight Left, looking out at the lights and skyline of Marshal Station, nestled into the side of the Martian mountain Arisa Mons.

He gestured at the air in front of him and a bevy of slightly grainy holographic images in neon and sparkle-dust appeared. He glanced at them, watching the various sliders and toggles reconfigure themselves at a breakneck speed as he thought-commanded his way through the remainder of the pre-launch checklist.

He glanced into the upper right edge of his vision, and a similarly slightly grainy holographic image of the communications system appeared. The [TRANSMIT] status indicator began blinking as he spoke, and the neon-outline of the panel changed to a soft red from its usual orange-gold.

Marshal Station, this is EMCSS Spanish Train, pilot snap-in complete. Pre-launch check-outs complete. Status is green, with no exceptions. Please disconnect ground services, over.”

Spanish Train, this is Mars / Marshal Station, copy over. Drones are disconnecting ground services now, per your request. Ok VAR, let’s get you up. Files to send: two; please accept for Exit Corridor and Bandit Report. Auth-code is 27JZ98N.”

A holographic dialog box with the two data files appeared before him, and he mentally sent the authorization code to unpack and load them into use. A glowing, flickering, set of rings and arrows, leading heavenward, appeared above him. The sky was thankfully devoid of blinking red diamond-shaped icons. There was one amber-toned triangle out past Deimos that wasn’t great news, but at least whoever that was hadn’t been reported for firing on anyone in recent memory.

*****

Getting Up

It was time to fly. At his mental command, the eight hold-down tethers around the ship tumbled off and began reeling back into their auto-spoolers spaced around the landing pad. An assortment of safety and visibility lights came on around the hull. He rolled his shoulders, and a ripple of fire and power snorted out of a variety of vector-able control thrusters over the ship.

“Data is good, Corridor is visible, I can roll out when you say so, JTL,” Vic said glancing over in the direction of the Traffic Control Centre.

“So,” Jacki replied with a giggle. “Safe flight, and good luck chasing some Venusian tail,” she offered, her grin still audible and infectious.

“Hey, now … it’s not always like that with me. Chat with you in a couple of weeks, JTL. Be well, my friend.”

He lifted into the thin Martian air about a dozen metres, blowing dust in all directions away from the landing pad he had just been standing on. He slowly turned in place to the right and then back to the left, making sure there was nothing impairing his maneuvering responses. Every thing seemed fine. With a last, quick, glance back towards where JTL would have been watching via cameras, he accelerated up into the sky. Just for style points he spread his arms wide and did a twisting roll before straightening out again back in the middle of the set of glowing neon rings that marked the edges of his Exit Corridor.

Marshal Station, this is Spanish Train, we are clear of the pad, speed 220 metres per second, altitude eleven hundred metres and climbing, over.”

Train, this is Station, we have you on scopes, and telemetry is good. When you cross six thousand you are cleared to accelerate to six-point-six kilometres per second. Remain within your Exit Corridor to completion, unless specifically given an exception by Mars Control to do so. You are cleared to begin own navigation to Venus / Nouveau Parison Corridor Exit. The current time is zero-four-one-eight Zulu. This is Mars / Marshal Station, out.”

And with that, he was on his own in the Big Dark. It took him about twenty seconds to rocket past the six kilometre “noise barrier”, and then he accelerated past Mars escape velocity. A neon box, glowing cyan, helpfully told him he would be passing Phobos in a bit less than half an hour. A similar box framing Deimos said he would then speed by it in about an hour. Fifteen minutes beyond the second Martian moon was the marker that indicated where he would be out of the Exit Corridor. These were all times and distances that were familiar and routine to him.

Then he would shift his course to a high speed transit towards Venus. Once he was out of the Corridor he would open the throttles on the Real Space Maneuver Drives to “Standard Orbital Cruise Velocity”, AKA SOCVel; accepted to be 14.4km/sec. He would therefore hit the Martian safety distance for his Breaker Drive of six hundred and eighty megametres a bit before eleven hours had elapsed since lift-off.

The ‘safety distance’ marked when they would be free of the most severe effects of Mars’ mass on the surrounding space. The Traincould hit nearly two hundred kilometres per second with the Breaker Drive running. Then he could relax; there weren’t too many things that tried to mess with a ship that had it’s Breaker Drive engaged. The physics were against them from the start.

He had a couple of holo-drama series he wanted to binge-watch, and he had a couple of good audio books to go through. Maybe he would get caught up on his favourite VR MMO play-by-upload strategy game as well.

He looked in the direction of the amber-toned triangle out past Deimos, whose last fix had been on the Bandit Report. Unusually, it was absent of any transponder data, ship name, registry, or anything; just a ship that someone had thought they had seen, hiding in the solar-wind shadow of Deimos.

He focused his senses in the area of the small Martian moon. After a few moments of staring at the empty space there, his passive detectors picked up the faint electromagnetic emissions of a starship. After another moment, he got a brief transponder return; it was, surprisingly, a Venusian gunboat, named the VNS Cloud City Dawn.

It had to be a small ship for it to be able to mostly hide in the weak disturbance of Deimos’ solar-wind shadow, but still, even a Corvette would eat him for a snack if they decided they didn’t like him for some reason.

Why was it out here, lurking around? It made him uneasy. Venus and Mars had been independent nation-worlds for over eighty years at this point, and inter-planetary politics was always a bit weird from Vic’s point of view, but still … there had never been an interplanetary war. Every nation-world had nukes and ships equipped with Breaker Drives. Twentieth Century M-A-D Policy; Mutually Assured Destruction, updated to present day. Stalemate. End of story.

He shrugged. Not his problem. He updated the contact info for the amber-toned triangle, qualified it as a blue-circle, and logged it.

As he flew though space at more than eight times the speed of a rifle bullet, he refocused his attention to the space between him and the end of the Exit Corridor. It looked empty and there was no evidence of anything around it, either.

Good. He hated Pirates. You didn’t get rid of Danes by paying the Danegeld, but you also didn’t get to keep your ship if you didn’t pay the Toll Fees that Pirates levied. Toll Fees were hard on profits, but having your pressure hull perforated by between three-hundred to five-hundred 20mm explosive submunitions was hard on your respiration.

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Chapter 2

The Space in Between

It had been a pretty quiet few days. He’d gotten out of the Martian planetary system, clutched in the Breaker Drive, accelerated up to 200km/sec, and that was that. Space, as was famously quoted, “… is big. Really big.” Which meant that there was no such thing as surprises. Everything had a long time to arrive, no matter where either you, or it, was going. By extension, that meant you had a long time to notice it coming and watch it arrive.

Once the Breaker Drive was on, he’d snapped out, and then gone through “decompression” to get his brain and body back down to “normal human speeds” so he didn’t drop into convulsions or suffer a heart attack. Speeding up was easy; the human brain and nervous system liked running free at the speed of thought, without the restrictions of muscles and tendons holding it back. Slowing it all back down again after spending any substantial amount of time snapped in, unfortunately, was kind of tricky.

Once he was out of the decompression routine, he had gotten unplugged, cleaned up ,and back into his coveralls. He heated up some food and watched a VODcast by his favourite independent commercial cargo marketing guru, while trying to ignore the shakes and headache that came from the pills. The pills made it possible for anyone with a bit of training to snap in, but they weren’t free; they cost both out of the pocket and out of the body.

Mostly, the routine while auto-piloting between planets was easy. Every two hours re-run the navigation calculations and update the course as required. Most of the time it wasn’t required. Every three hours check the maintenance list for whatever needed a checkup or fix-up. Every four hours get a small meal. Every six hours get a nap. Repeat.

The time in between was open. Of course, “open” was more like “filled”. He listened to books, watched holo-dramas, played digital games, worked out in the micro-gym, and worked on the next study-lesson or lab-assignment in his remote-learning subscription. He hated being bored so he stayed busy any time he wasn’t already busy with the ship.

Lately he’d been wasting a bit more than too much time playing a VR cover-shooter set at a mythical Pluto-research station where things had gone Very Bad. The usual bevy of slathering monsters wanted to eat him, while Men In Black With Plasma Launchers did their AI-best to ensure there were no witnesses. It was a lot of fun, and the dodge-dive-and-shoot system wasn’t bad. The story was a bit thin, but the level design kept it fresh. He’d given “Plutonian”, as the game was titled, a 7.4 out of 10.0 on the game store reviews service.

Right now, though, he was sitting in his favourite chair in the lounge, unusually idle. The main entertainment screen showed the view of Venus as seen from about twelve-thousand kilometres above Maxwell Montes, the highest mountain on Venus, on the northern continent of Ishtar Terra. That was the point that Cloud City Prime hovered over, as almost anyone who had ever picked up a modern high school geography text could tell you.

Most people wouldn’t call Venus pretty by any metre-stick, either from space or on the ground. Still, it was a place that people lived, and where people lived, freighters had to go. Vic, on the other hand, considered the sunrises and sunsets at any of the various floating cities absolutely stunning. There was a quality to it that was unique to the Venusian atmospheric chemistry at fifty kilometres up that, to his eyes at least, was worth the price of arrival.

“One new email has arrived. Shall I show it on a nearby display?” the ship’s computer, voice-code “Jeanie”, asked over the intercom in her specifically attractive Martian-Aussie drawl.

“Jeanie, show new email on lounge entertainment display,” he answered, sitting up a bit and shifting in his armchair. He looked over at the screen with renewed interest.

- - - - -

FROM: “SIL”<LuvzASpankKing@Speedlink.NouveauParis.AphroditeTerra.Venus>

TO: “VAR”<BigShotCargoPilot@FireWeb.Yellowknife.NAFTABlock.Earth>

SUBJ: Hot Datez 4 U! (No really, you owe me)

Heya, sexy-pants! Look, I’m referring some biz to you when you pull into Nouveau Paris. It’s a charter, and should be paying top coin. I expect you’ll appreciate the fringe benefits, too.

One passenger, plus baggage, plus one container … Venus -> Luna -> Mars, private charter. Bill it like it’s premium rate on every cabin and every cargo slot. They won’t blink.

You can say ‘thank-you’ in a sauna-room next time you are out this way. Srs. You can shag me later for this.

— SIL

- - - - -

Vic raised an eyebrow and blinked. “SIL” was Sonya Leonardsson, a transplanted Martian now living on Venus, working the club and entertainment scene as a bookings manager for the “alt-music” crowd. He’d met her at party a while back when they had both been a bit too drunk and a bit too high to really make good life-choices; he’d found out what her name was over a very awkward breakfast the next morning in a flat neither of them owned.

She was tall, a bit skinny, with medium length curly hair. Her skin showed clear Arabic ancestry, and she spoke with a twang that came from her NAFTA-Texas parents who immigrated to Mars before she was born.

She was a perma-flirt in a way that was almost tiring to be around. He was hardly a prude, case in point how he met her, but even so, she never let up with the come-ons and inappropriate commentary. He figured it had something to do with the general lifestyle of the business she was in. On the other hand, if you wanted to really indulge in an evening of good music and outrageous debauchery, she was your go-to-girl.

Which led to the question foremost on his mind, what on Earth, Mars or Venus was with her sending a premium-coin charter to him? This was seriously not her usual business, and she knew he wasn’t one for passenger traffic.

He rubbed at his forehead. Some actor, he supposed. He likely needed to be out to Mars faster than a standard liner would take him for a holofilm shoot. The routing via Luna, Earth’s Moon, was a bit odd. Luna was a pretty rough neighbourhood, all in all, having fought a messy war of independence after having been a penal mining colony. The locals were all hard-knock cases and suspicious of non-natives.

Still, that was a lot of money. He’d see what came of it when he got to Venus. Given it was SIL, he wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be nothing.

*****

Pulling In

A couple of days later, the Spanish Trainspooled down her Breaker Drive at about twelve hundred megametres distance from Venus. The transition was a bit rough, like catching turbulence in an early twentieth-century propeller airliner, but Vic wasn’t that worried about it. Containerized cargo and mail bags didn’t care if your drives were out of alignment by a few microns. Vic, snapped in, barely felt it for the half-minute or so that it went on.

Nothing broke, nothing needed repairs and thus nothing was going to cost money right now. That was his primary concern. As he coasted down from the supernaturally high speed of two-hundred kilometres per second to the more “real” speed of about twelve kilometres per second, he looked around. He was immediately searching for anything that was framed in an amber-coloured neon triangle, or worse, a red diamond. His communications system immediately connected into the public-broadcast Vessel-Traffic Information Network, and began trading sensor information with both the Vessel Traffic Control service as well as other ships using the network.

Earth had first developed the VTIN concept as a way of crowd-sourcing the job of tracking the hundreds of vessels, work-shacks, orbital factories, service shuttles, and space stations that were between LEO, Luna and the two L5 points. Essentially, it turned every ship, shuttle, station, or whatever into a remote sensor drone, so everyone could see what everyone else could see.

VTIN had not quite managed to kill piracy around Earth-Luna outright, but it had certainly made it damn tricky. Known pirates had an Interceptor vectored on them as soon as they showed up on grid, and got hounded until they went off grid, one way or another. Venus had licensed the VTIN system outright, even though they weren’t a quarter as busy as the Earth-Luna corridor. Mars, thus far, still used the antiquated “Bandit Report” system.

Four other starships were within about fifteen hundred megametres of him. Two were the big, hundred-metre-long corporate-owned container ships. He focused in on one, zooming his optical view until it filled his vision. Vic suddenly had the feeling of meeting a super model at a rave; like he had to check his hair and make sure he hadn’t left his fly unzipped. Damn, the Corporate Crews had it good.

It was a beautiful machine, all curves, lights, clean white-grey paint, dark blue trim lines, racks upon racks of cargo modules, and what looked like the soft glow of a dozen engine-pods moving her through real-space like some graceful giant whale. That was, of course, if whales hadn’t been extinct for a hundred years and they flew through space.

It wasn’t the first of these massive freighters he had seen. The “Hercules”-class cargo ships were at least a weekly sight at any given planet. For some reason, though, right now, it was like seeing one for the first time.

They were significantly wider than his comparatively tiny “Dublin”-class ship was long, and moved more cargo in a single run than he potentially might handle all year. The crews were on a modest salary with performance bonuses and top-drawer benefits packages. Corporate security ships escorted the “Hercs” in and out of every port they called at, making them functionally exempt from piracy.

He sighed with a sensation of envy, reset his field of view, and gave the area around him another cursory look. The Indie/Tramp Merchant life gave you a lot of freedom, but it wasn’t free. “Time off” was best described as “the stressful period of unemployment between cargo contracts”. If he got sick or something, that was time on the pad burning coin and making nothing, until he got better.

Decades ago, someone in a self-help book prophesied that the future would belong to the freelancers. Maybe it did, but none of his peers in the biz, that he knew well enough to talk money with at least, could figure out how they were supposed to pay the ownership fees.

He turned his gaze back towards Venus, and adjusted his trajectory slightly. Eighteen hours from now, including a dive through an Entrance Corridor, would have him on a landing pad at Nouveau Paris. Unload, spend a couple of days hunting for cargo by day and partying at night, and then hopefully be off again somewhere else. The bills needed paying.

*****

On the Docks

As the Spanish Trainslowly cruised in towards the floating city of Nouveau Paris, he marvelled yet again at how stubborn mankind could be in its passion to occupy the solar system. The “Icarus” system was simple; a set of seventeen helium-filled balloons the total size of a typical FIFA soccer stadium, suspending a structure about the same size beneath it. The balloons were a seven-ply sandwich of Mylar, Kevlar, Graphene, and some other wonder-materials that made it largely impervious to everything. Each structure had several vectored fan motors of various sizes to keep altitude and location exact to within the width of a person’s hand.

A “service station” was one Icarus System. A “colony” was three. A “town” was nine. A “city”, like Nouveau Paris or Cloud City Prime, was twenty-seven or more. The more important something was, the more towards the middle of the set of interconnected platforms it was. The more likely something was going to be the scene of an accident, the more towards the edge of the arrangement.

The landing platforms, therefore, were the lowest down and furthest out. The Spanish Trainwas the biggest craft that could land at one of these floating technological wonders. In point of fact, her nose hung out past the edge of the landing pad by more than seven metres. Monsters like the Hercules-class ships had to unload their cargo in orbit and have a small army of shuttles bring the containers down in sets of six or eight.

Paris Control, this is Spanish Train. We are down on pad Seven Bravo. Requesting ground services and tie-down, over,” Vic radioed.

“Roger,Train, wilco. Welcome to Venus. You are a drop-belly configuration for cargo handling, correct?”

“That’s Aff, Paris.”

“Roger, call back when you have the tray down and we’ll dispatch the cargo handling drones, over.”

“Understood, wilco, Train,out.”

He mentally flipped the switches that started the cargo-handling process. The doors leading to and from the cargo bay closed, sealed, locked, and outlined themselves in a muted red neon glow that periodically double-pulsed extra brightly. That should prevent someone from accidentally letting the Venusian atmosphere into the ship, in all its sulphuric acid charm.

The entire deck of the cargo bay was a hydraulic lift platform. There was a pop and lengthy hiss, followed by the baying and flashing of warnings about heavy equipment in motion. Coupled to the sound of substantial hydraulic systems running, the platform lowered itself slowly down to the landing pad deck over the next several minutes.

While that was happening, he payed the fees associated with re-tanking the reactor, life-support systems, and such, as well as the berth fees for three days. He tried not to wince at the resulting bank balance. However, that number would go up a fair bit a few hours after the freight-handling drones scanned the Q-Codes on the cargo containers and classed them as “Delivered”.

Then he started the decompression process so he could snap out. He wanted off the ship. He was going to get a motel room, get a real shower, some real food, some real air, some real party and maybe some real girl. He could always hope.

*****

Little Miss Dangerous

The air temperature outside was a balmy seventy-five Celsius as he walked through the transparent dockway tunnel that connected the ship to the city. The sun was high in the sky and the clouds were their usual glorious golden-pearl. He reached the connector hub that joined the three pads at this area together, and to the rest of the city, glancing around as he arrived. Much to his interest, a fairly attractive woman was glancing at an ePad and glancing in turn at the markers over the dockways.

She was wearing a stunning ensemble of black and white; knee-skirt, bolero jacket with padded shoulders, wide belt, and high heels. Everything matched; from the fabric, to the belt, to the earrings, to the clutch-case, and the ePad. Her hair was “suicide black” and had the kind of volume and poise that cost considerable time and money at a salon. Her lipstick was a rich red gloss and the rest of her make-up was impeccable. She was tall, leggy and curvy. Standing there consulting the ePad, she looked like she had gotten lost on the way home from a fashion show.

She slid her dark sunglasses down to the end of her nose, looking over them as he came down the two steps from the dockway into the connector hub. “Excuse me, Monsieur,” she said in a honey-thick French accent, “I am looking for zee ship ‘Spanish Train’. Do hue know which h’one it is?”

Vic blinked at her and pulled his own sunglasses off. He couldn’t have heard her right. “Uh … I’m sorry, did you just say you were looking for a ship named the ‘Spanish Train’?”

“H’Oh, oui, oui, dat is zee h'one. I am sorry for my accent. H’English is not my usual tongue,” she said, sounding a bit embarrassed. “Do you know which ship it is?”

Vic blinked again, and suddenly was feeling exactly the same kind of awkward as when he had seen the Herc earlier. She was looking forhisship? He couldn’t be that lucky, could he?

“Ah, yeah, that’s my ship, ma’am.”

“Oh! I am zoe lucky!,” she squealed and waved her free hand excitedly. “You must be Victor Rimmer. Sonya told moi allll about you,” the French woman said with a mischievous grin that almost resulted in an embarrassed flush reaching Vic’s cheeks. He was going to kill Sonya the next time he saw her.

“She said she would h’Email hue h'about a charter,” she continued on breathlessly, “did she do dat?” Her free hand danced constantly as she talked and Vic had to force himself to concentrate on what she was saying. She was a combination of attractive and energetic that was distracting, to say the least.

“What? Sonya? Wait … Yes, she did email me about a charter. Are … are you the one looking?”

Oui! I am … How you say … ‘in a pickle’? My name is doctor Cosette Toussaint. I am a researcher here at zee American University h’of Nouveau Paris. My specialties are h'astronomy and high-h’energy physics.”

Vic was starting to consider pinching himself. This bombshell looking for a premium charter for his ship was a doctor and a researcher? Curves, style, energy, and brains in one blue-eyed package?

“Um, well, it’s … it’s a pleasure to meet you, Doctor Toussaint. I’m sorry, but, I don’t speak French.”

The top-model-come-PhD waved her free hand and giggled, a sound that nearly required him to consider an early shower. “Oh, non, non… just call me ‘Cosette’, s’il-vous-plait. You Spacers, you all use your initials, oui? So, Sonya is SIL?”

“Uh, yeah, that’s right. It’s … call it a sub-culture thing. You sign so much paperwork with the same group of people over and over, everyone just goes by their initials,” he nodded, folding his sunglasses up and hanging them at the collar of his shirt.

“I think dat is adorable! So, as Spacers, how do your peers know you?”

“VAR.”

“Den dat would make me ‘CAT’. A grand-plaisir to meet you, VAR,” she beamed at him, sounding delighted. She then looked around them, as though expecting to see someone watching or lurking. “Perhaps we can go aboard your ship, and talk about if you can help me with my little problem, oui?” she asked, sounding suddenly shy and perhaps a bit vulnerable.

If he had met her at one of SIL’s parties and she had asked to go back to his ship to sort out a “little problem” for her, he’d have been salivating the whole walk. Her sudden change in demeanour just now, however, had him suddenly glancing around and feeling protective of the woman standing there.

“Uh, yeah, sure. Come on. Just … um … don’t mind the mess. I, ah, haven’t had time to get Port Services into scrub everything out.”

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Chapter 3

Hard Negotiations

“So,” Vic began slowly after a mouthful of his drink, “let me get this straight; you are worried that a misogynistic rival at the University is trying to steal your work to get credit for it?”

Oui-oui,” she nodded. “H’Oh, I am terribly sorry for asking, but do you mind if I smoke? It calms my nerves, and well, dis h’entire affair is very stressful pour moi.”

“Yeah, sure, go ahead … um, hang on,” Vic replied. He got up from where he was sitting in one of the chairs in the passenger lounge, rummaging for a few minutes. He was deeply regretting having spent the past three, or four, or nine weeks, living like a bachelor. He was absolutely calling Port Services tomorrow and ponying up the cash for getting the cabins and lounge scrubbed out.

The place was a disaster; if she had noticed, she had thus far gracefully failed to comment or allude. She looked like some French fashion princess, sitting with her legs crossed and her ePad held tightly in her left hand.

He found an ashtray for her, and a working rechargeable electric lighter. Setting the ashtray on the pull-table beside her, he went over to the cabinet above the mini-bar that he had poured their drinks from and pulled out the second-to-last guest pack of smokes.

He noted that she watched his every movement in a way he was only used to being looked at when he stepped out of the shower with company. He’d been told often enough that he was a good looking guy, but he discounted a lot of that on the basis of optical filtering via alcohol or drugs on the part of the on the part of the speaker. While Cosette keep her facial features schooled in a way that made sense for a university professional, her eyes were deeply expressive, and the current look in them almost made his mouth dry.

“Uh, here you go. I hope the brand is okay. I, uh, can’t really afford the expensive stuff,” he said as he walked over to her and passed her the pack. He returned to his chair once she took it from him.

“H’Oh, dis is very kind h’of hue. Merci, VAR,” she said. She quickly fished a two piece vape-stick holder from her clutch on the table beside her, and clicked it together. Efficiently and swiftly unwrapping the pack Vic had given her, she tapped the bottom to pop one up, and twisted it into the holder. She lit it with the lighter she had been given, and took an eyes-closed deep-breath of the smoke, turned her head away from him, and held it for a moment. Tilting her head back slightly, she exhaled a plume into the air.

Vic licked his lips and immediately had a mouthful of his drink. Mostly, it was to stop himself from going slack jawed at the curve of her neck and the way the light played through the smoke over her lipstick and blush. He’d been wondering what SIL had meant in her email about ‘fringe benefits’, but damn.

“Just so it’s said, you’re welcome to light up anytime you’re in the lounge here,” Vic offered, admittedly for entirely selfish reasons. “No smoking in the cabins, or anywhere else but in the lounge. Okay?”

“H’Oh, oui, oui, dat is perfectly reasonable,” Cosette answered with a warm smile. She took another languid drag, followed by a self-indulgent pause and an equally languid exhale.

“Ah, yeah, so, where were we? Oh, yeah, right, so if I understand this correctly, you want to get your research experiment to Luna to calibrate and test it, and then repeat the process when we get to Mars?”

Oui, dat is h’essentially it. Doctor Venkeham has been, shall we say, inappropriate á moi and he has made it clear dat if I do not give in, give him what he wants, he will ruin my career.,” she said quietly, sounding almost ashamed.

Vic briefly considered volunteering to shoot the sunavabitch Venkeham as a faster method of solving her problem. The bastard, whoever he was, was ransoming this beautiful woman’s career for a throw.

“Well,” he said after a moment, “Sonya sent you to the right place at the right time. I pretty much got into port just a couple of hours before I met you. I haven’t gotten any cargo contracts out of Venus yet, so … I think I can help you,” he said carefully.

Her eyes lit up, her ePad was released for the first time since he had met her, and her now free left hand flew to her mouth. “H’Oh? Oui? Tu-peux m’aider?” she asked, sounding hopeful.

“Sorry … Commercial-English?” he asked, feeling like a peasant.

“H’Oh! Excuse me! Oui, I asked if you could really help me,” Cosette explained.

“Yeah, I can. Now … I’ll be honest with you, I can’t do this as charity,” he said.

“Oh, non-non! Dat would not be fair h’of me. H’Of course I am happy to pay. As zee commercial says, 'I have a Stellar H’Express card and I am not afraid to use it',” she said with a laugh.

He couldn’t help but join in with her moment of mirth, until the moment ran dry and he found himself looking into her eyes. She blinked at him and looked away, embarrassed about something.

“Um, excusez-moi for asking, but … and s’il-vous-plait, I do not mean h’offense … but, are you single?” she asked him cautiously.

He did his level best not to stare at her, or to drop his drink. “Uh, yeah, that’s … that’s right. SIL is a fun acquaintance, in case that is what you are wondering, but I’m single.”

She nodded nervously, and took two tries at getting her next words out. “Hon Luna, would hue be willing to go to a party avec moi?”

“Wait … pardon?” he asked.

“So … merde, dis is awkward.” She looked pained and then started again. “Part h’of dee foolishness I have to go through for dis reedeekuloose h'affair is being seen at a party h’on Luna. It is all part h’of zee game, you see. Reputation and all dat.” She sounded frustrated as she spoke, and took a curt puff and exhale from her vape-stick.

“Reedeekuloose,” she repeated in annoyance. “It is h’one h’of dose dreadful tuxedo affairs. Zee problem is dat if I go alone, I will spend tous-le-soir fending h’off lecherous professors who are twice my age. So, if I have, how-you-say, a 'date' den it will be a much h’easier h’evening.” She had a more relaxed drag and exhale before looking towards him, with her head tilted slightly, openly looking him over.

“SIL was right. You are attractiff. Zee phrase she used was 'good arm candy'. She says you are a good dancer, aussi. Just club styles?”

Had he just heard right? He was going to play “arm candy” to this brilliant bombshell at a ballroom gala? What the frack had just gone right in his life?

He licked his dry lips before answering. “Uh, no, actually. When I was a kid, my mom insisted my sister and I take latin and ballroom, at least until to we were sixteen. I stuck with it for a couple more years because, well, girls like a guy that can cut the rug, yeah?”

She blinked at him and burst out laughing, before covering her mouth and trying to look noticeably less mischievous than she was clearly thinking. “I am thinking dat phrase, 'cut zee rug', means something different to we French,” she tittered behind her hand.

He tried not to be embarrassed. “Uh, yeah, I mean ‘can dance well’,” he said.

“I will try to keep dat definition in mind, oui,” she giggled mischievously for another moment or two. “So, joking aside, would hue be willing to be my date? All you have to do is wear a suit, drink some champagne, and perhaps dance a bit.”

“I think that’s the best offer I’ve gotten for a night out in a long time,” he answered, trying to sound casual. “I’d be happy to go with you. It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to go out to something like that.”

She openly looked relieved. “Merci, VAR. So, dis chartering a spaceship is new á moi. What happens next? How do we 'seal zee deal', as they say?”

“You provide me your authentication service ID, I send you a copy of the standard contract with the rates filled in and the expected total cost. Then, you digitally sign it and return it. Pretty standard stuff. Payment terms are thirty-percent down payment, thirty-percent when we reach Luna, the rest when we reach Mars. The last two payments have to be posted before we leave with a reputable third-party escrow service.

She gave him an impish look. “I thought zee rule was 'never pay zee ferryman in advance'?”

“This is bigger than a ferry, so you’re safe. And I insist on fixing the price,” he answered, rather amused. “Besides, that is what the escrow service is for. If you don’t know of any, I can recommend a couple of good ones here on Venus,” he offered.

“Zee university uses a couple h’of good h'ones. I will take care h’of dat right away,” she answered ,sounding much more business-like. She flipped open her ePad and scribbled something on it.

“Once that is done, well, technically we can leave at eight AM local time tomorrow, if you’re in a rush. It would likely be better if we leave no earlier than one PM local time, though.”

“Oh. Well,” she replied seeming a bit surprised. “One PM would be ideal. I will have zee h’experiment in a standard container. It will require power hook-ups, but dat should not be a problem, non?”

“Not a problem at all. The cargo racks are all fitted with EMC-standard power and HVAC connectors, and I’ve got the adaptors for the Venusian and Jovian standards.”

“You think h’of h’everything,” she said with a flutter of her long lashes and a clear sound of relief. “It has zee info for my ASID, as well has where to h’Email zee contract,” she said leaning over towards him to pass him the gold-foil and mylar glossed twenty-forty-four.

“Excellent. I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon at one. If you’re not used to space travel, or get motion sick, I’d suggest taking your nausea suppressors before noon. Leaving Venus can get a bit rough in the upper atmosphere.”

*****

Leaving on Venus Time

Cosette had been good to her word. Within an hour of shaking her hand at the docking collar leading back to the dockway tunnel, he had gotten the digitally signed contract, the downpayment, andthe notice of escrow from a major Venusian banking firm. As Sonya had suggested in her email to him, Cosette had not even tried to negotiate with him over the rate. Even with just the first thirty-percent in the bank, his account had not looked this healthy in a while.

While it was temping to call SIL up for a quick “thank-you” night of debauchery, he thought it might be a bit tacky to have some rough-and-quick with her and then spend the rest of the week with CAT. Instead, he opted for a good meal at a good restaurant, a take-home bottle of a good smokey Scotch, and just hanging out online.

He’d logged onto his favourite VR-MMO-RPG, “City of Justice”. He was part of a semi-permanent “League of Heroes” group, and they had all been happy to hear from him after about a three-week absence. They’d encouraged him to join them on a “Law Patrol”, but the servers were all on Earth; fifteen seconds of lag made anything more complicated than standing in the “League Lounge” and chatting slowly impossible. Still, it was good to catch up with everyone and he promised them the next time he was on Earth he’d specifically spend time online with them all.

He had also ordered delivery on a fresh bottle of the crucial neuromuscular relaxants he depended on. They would show up by courier by nine in the morning. Port Services was booked to be here by eight AM sharp for a “Silver Star” service call; he could usually only afford “Economy Grade”, let alone “Bronze Star”.

By noon the Spanish Train was ready to go. The living spaces in the ship hadn’t looked this good since he had bought her at auction. Glancing at his WristSmart he expected to see a notification that the contract had been cancelled. He had come to expect that if things were going well, it just meant something was about to go wrong.

At seven minutes to one his WristSmart bleeped. The message was from Cosette saying she was just getting to the dockway hub and would be at the ship shortly. Almost as soon as he “ACK’d” the message with a tap on the watch-face another one arrived from Port Cargo to let him know that a cargo handling drone would be arriving in a few minutes for automated loading of a single TFU2. He exhaled in relief.

“H’Oh, bonjour, VAR!” Cosette smiled at him and waived as he met her at the docking collar. Towing a three-bag train of luggage and clutching her ePad, she was wearing noticeably more casual attire than the last time he’d seen her in the dockway.

Her dye-black hair was teased and piled high with silver shots of metallic spray-dye through it. Wearing a double-breasted, bolero-style jacket of distressed leather with silvered buttons, her acid-washed blue-jean pants had the same double-row of silver buttons over the front. They looked tight enough that he was pretty sure they had to have been 3D printed onto her. Damn, the woman had curves.

“Oh, ah, hello Doctor. Welcome aboard the Spanish Train for your charter flight to Luna-Earth. Your cargo is being loaded as we speak.”

She frowned and then pouted at him, her lip gloss a rich red with silver sparkles in it. “Non, VAR. Please, do not call me ‘Doctor' h’all trip, s’il-vous-plait. It would make moi very happy if you would call me ‘CAT’. It will be fun to be h’one h’of zee cool kids for h’once,” she said with a grin.

“Well, CAT, if that will make you happy, then that is what I’ll do. You’re paying me to make you happy, after all,” he said with a chuckle

“I will keep dat in mind for later, den,” she said with a mischievous wink as she strolled past him. His mouth went dry as he watched her. He was going to have to start carrying a canteen of cold water with him when she was around.

He followed her into the Lounge, enjoying the view of her sway and figure as they went. “You have cabins two and three. That’s a luxury grade configuration of two standard cabins set up as one larger cabin,” he said pointing towards the one open cabin door. “Your privacy card is on your pillow. There is plenty of space to set your bags. Venus to Luna-Earth is about two days at hyper speeds, plus about a day on each end at normal speed. Is this your first time tripping between planets?”

Oui, it is. I was born h’on Venus after my parents moved here from France, h’on h’Earth. Dis will be my first time away from Venus.” She smiled at him. “I am glad you will be my pilot for dis, VAR. Hue make moifeel safe already” she said quietly.

“Uh … well, thank you. Speaking of safe, this ship is too small to carry escape pods. So, if for any reason an alarm goes off, you will hear a recorded message directing you to go to your cabin and lock the door. Don’t think about it, or question it, or hesitate, just do it. Run, do not walk, and seal the door.”

“H'Oh?” she questioned, an eyebrow raised in curiosity.

“Yes. Each cabin is a self-contained pressure and environmental unit. It’s got eight hours of power under the floor in storage cells that will keep you breathing, warm, and able to see, no matter what. Do not open the door until you hear specifically from me that it is safe to do so. That sealed door might be the only thing keeping you from having your blood boil or your eyeballs freeze.”

“You make a very convincing h'argument,” she replied dryly.

“I’m glad. You have nice eyes, and I’d hate to see anything bad happen to them,” he replied before his brain registered what had just gotten out of his mouth. He tried not to panic and remain looking cool. To his surprise, while she didn’t noticeably blush, she definitely seemed pleased by the compliment.

“Uh, so, back to safety. During departure and arrival, I’m snapped in. I mean, I’m using a cybernetic control systems interface to run the ship. So, if you need to talk to me, use this ‘video phone’, called a SnapComm link, here on your desk. The bridge door will be locked and sealed any time I am snapped in, and my ears are literally turned off, so don’t bother knocking.”

She pursed her lips for a moment and then nodded. “But zee rest h’of zee time, hue will be available in zee lounge, oui?” she asked hopefully.

“Um, yeah, yeah, of course. I mean, there is stuff I need to check on with the engines and stuff around the ship, but … any time I’m not snapped in, or working on maintenance, then yeah, I’ll be hanging out in the lounge, I’d guess,” he said, trying to sound casual. He was mentally trying to figure out which maintenance schedules he could skip to be ‘available’ as much as she wanted. This was starting to look like it might be a few verygooddays for him.

*****

Old Enough to Know Better

They were about half-way through the trip to Earth-Luna and things were pretty relaxed. Once the Breaker Drive had been engaged, things had gotten into a fairly comfortable routine with Cosette aboard. She had asked him if it was normal for the ship to “shake so much” when accelerating to hyper-transit speeds. He’d told her that it was part of the ‘character’ of the Spanish Trainand mentally made a note to get the drive alignments checked next time he was out towards Saturn.

Regardless of her earlier stated interest in his being “available” to keep her company, she generally seemed willing to keep herself occupied. Whenever he was working on something around the ship, she was working on what she explained was part of her research. Whatever it was she was doing seemed to involved three ePads daisy-chained together to a dual-display portable computer, a fair amount of dictation in French to her WristSmart, an awful lot of graphs, and a ridiculous amount of math.

Cosette had been noticeably less talkative once they had gotten into space. She seemed aware of the fact she was in his ship, and therefore his extended personal space, and was being courteous enough not to be a nuisance. He appreciated that, and at the same time was a bit disappointed.

It was “supper time”. Cosette, to her credit, had adapted fairly quickly to the food service. She had been completely intrigued about the idea that four out of four meals a day were essentially two litres of near-boiling water divided amongst a selection of four different packages of freeze-dried food. She had spent most of the first meal she had aboard reading the detail print on the various packages. Vic, on the other hand, had to do his best to not seem taken aback by just how much better this grade of food was, compared to what he usually bought.

Either way, Cosette had requested that he let her know when he was eating, so she could join him for the meal. He wasn’t going to argue with having her company. For this particular meal, the fare was a seaweed salad with vinaigrette, butter chicken with rice, green tea, and an almond-toffee pudding. Of course, black tea or coffee was always an option, regardless of the hour, from the perk machine in the mini-galley.

They were working on dessert and chatting. “So, if you do not mind zee question, how h’old are you, VAR?” Cosette asked him, essentially out of the blue.

“Twenty-four,” Vic answered after swallowing his mouthful. “Or, as my mother would be inclined to say, ‘old enough to know better, and young enough to do it anyway’,” he said with a grin.

“Ahhh,oui, I recall dat h'age. It was not too long ago,” she chuckled. “I will spare you zee conceit about being twenty-nine,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “Unlike some h’of my peers, my age is not something dat bothers me. I am thirty-five.”

So, she was a bit more than a decade his senior. He supposed that made sense for a university research professor with a double specialty. Apparently, he now had a thing for an older woman. That was an interesting change.

“Does dat bother hue, VAR?” she asked quietly, in apparent reaction to his expression. He set his pudding spoon down and shook his head.

“No, not at all, actually. I was just wondering about that ballroom gala that I am supposed to be your ‘date’ for. You’re not worried about how that might look?”

“Just do not arrive with a lolly-pop in your mouth, and I am sure it will be fine, VAR. Ten years at h’our h'age is hardly, how do they say, 'robbing zee cradle'?” she grinned at him.

“I suppose not,” he said with a laugh. “So, how does that party fit into your research, anyway?”

“Politics,” she sighed. “Research costs money, VAR. Research into high-h’energy physics costs lots h’of money. Dis party is a get-together h’of zee big names in corporate sponsorship. If I can impress a couple h’of dem, den perhaps dat would be h’enough to secure my work for zee future.”

“Selling your soul so that you don’t have to sell your body, CAT? I’m not sure you’re any further ahead there,” Vic commented acidly.

Cosette looked at him across the top of her pudding spoon. “Do not dits-moi dat you think someone in my world can ignore zee corporations. Most governments do not finance research anymore, VAR. They cannot afford to. If you think dat choosing zee spikes for my crucifixion makes moi some kind h’of whore, well," she set her spoon down sharply, the contents untouched. “Den I think dat you ignore how a lot h’of zee solar system works just to make yourself feel superior,” she concluded bitterly.

“Look, CAT,” he began, trying to explain himself.

“Do not 'look CATmoi, monsieur Bitter-Boy, ” she snapped at him. “You can think dat being an 'independent entrepreneur' makes you superior, but we both know dat you barely pay zee bills most months. We both know dat zee money you are taking from moi is just corporate coin dat crossed my palms first. If you think I spend all my h’evenings cleaning zee nasty bits h’off for you, den you need to think again,” she spat coldly as she got up from the table. “Excuse-moi, s’il-vous-plait. I have work to do.”

Before Vic had a chance to get recovered from the shock of the verbal mauling he had just received, she got up, tossed her napkin onto her plate, stomped off to her cabin and closed the door.

“Smooth, Vic. Real smooth,” he sighed and rubbed at his forehead. “Good job on dying on that moral high ground. The tombstone will be real nice, I’m sure. I should come up with a good epitaph while I’m up here.”

*****

Outrunning the Gauntlet

The morning after the heated supper-time exchange, Vic had swallowed his pride and apologized to her. Cosette accepted it gracefully, and in turn apologized for losing her temper. She was stressed and trying to make the best of a bad situation, but it didn’t excuse her taking it out on him. It was a better recovery of the situation than he had expected, even if supper that evening had been a bit less chatty.

The Spanish Train’s Breaker Drive had disengaged at the safety limit for the Earth-Luna planetary system of about thirteen-hundred megametres. The tremor-wrought transition had lasted around three-quarters of a minute, prompting another polite enquiry from Cosette if that really was a common thing on passenger liners. He’d replied by commenting that he didn’t know, since he’d never flown a passenger liner.

That was about twelve hours ago and he had been snapped in ever since. Cosette had chimed him twice since then to “check up” on him; he suspected it was as much for her nerves as anything else.

Many people outside the “Spacer Biz” weren’t used to the physical endurance tests that flying a ship to and from the Breaker Drive limits, while snapped in, amounted to. Many people might miss that almost every interplanetary pilot was slim-build, gym-fit, usually slightly tired, had a surprising appetite, and was usually slightly twitchy. If you were in the business in any way, though, it was an obvious stereotype.

Twelve hours rolling at the speed of thought gave you lots of time to think. As a result, he had given Cosette’s savage sermon a fair amount of consideration. She had been right, as distasteful as it was to admit that.

The Sol System, such as it was now, was designed, managed, and maintained by a series of “public-private partnerships” between national and planetary governments and various “Non-Governmental Organizations”. Most NGOs in this day and age were LLCs; “Limited Liability Consortiums”. In other words, most governments outsourced the job of government to corporations.

Interplanetary Police? That’s StarPol, LLC. The Venusian Space Traffic Control Public Service? That’s the Destination Management Group, LLC. Para-military anti-piracy patrols in the Mars-Jupiter asteroid belt zone? That’s Right Guard Ship Inspections Services, LLC. On and on went the list.

Mars didn’t even bother with having a government. They’d outsourced the whole damn thing in the name of “efficiencies of scale with better long-term stake holder outcomes” to the Earth-Mars Commercial Combine, LLC, mostly known as EMC. His “independent” tramp freighter was actually registered as an EMC starship.

Obviously, if corporations were involved, then profit was part of the calculus. Profit might not be the only line, but it was the bottom line, as the saying went. There was an entire sub-culture of folks, like Vic, who hated that. That’s why people like he, JTL, SIL, and many others that he knew, were all contractors and independents. It kept them at arms length from being owned by the corporations.

Except that, as Cosette had shoved his nose into, it really didn’t. At the point that the multi-planetary, or ‘Mega’, corporations literally ran their own currencies and exchanges, most of the time as a “freelance independent cargo transport specialist”, he was being paid in corporate coin, and paying his bills to one MegaCorp with another, or sometimes even the same, MegaCorp’s coin.

So, what was he doing this for, then? Why was he living the hard life of always being just one or two shots of bad luck away from going bankrupt? He wasn’t sure he really knew, beyond it being the “right thing to do”.

‘Jeanie’, the ship’s computer, chimed him. “Vic, a paramilitary registry ship designated PMR-Alpha-Zero-One in your view, shifted its course one minute ago to a collision / intercept profile, and has been holding that course. It is eight hundred and eighty kilometres behind us, over taking. Closest point of approach will be in eleven minutes.”

Vic looked behind him, and sure enough, there was an neon-amber triangle, slowly decreasing the distance between them. “Thanks, Jeanie. Good catch.”

“My pleasure, Vic,” she replied.

Vic frowned. He zoomed his view field in on the suspicious ship. A “Valentia”-class patrol cruiser; about a third larger in size than the “Dublin”-class ships, which the Spanish Train was based on.

He was less than forty-five minutes from arriving at the Entry Corridor down to Luna City on the eastern edge of Mare Crisium. No one would be ballsy enough to try Piracy this close, would they?

They would be able to fire, if that was their plan, in nine minutes. That would mean that even a full military-grade Interceptor, scrambled the instant that Vic sent a distress call, would take fifteen minutes to get here. If all you wanted to do was, say, jack a docking collar open, grab an attractive French university researcher out of her cabin, and then run like hell, well, fifteen minutes was a lot of time.

Of course, he couldn’t cry wolf and raise the alarm because he thought another ship was “acting funny”. He called up the registry on the ship; the Venus Independently Registered Paramilitary Ship Mordred’s Gauntlet. Charming; that didn’t sound ominous or anything.

If he called them, and they were “sneaking up” on him, then they’d just move faster. Meaning he’d be further away from help when they got here. He needed a way to spring the trap, if there was one.

He chimed Cosette’s cabin. Her smiling image, with a bright pink towel wrapped around her head and a lemon-coloured bathrobe mostly on and open low, appeared in his field of view. For a moment, he couldn’t recall what he wanted to tell her.

“What is up, VAR? Is h’everything h’okay??” she asked, apparently oblivious to the view she was giving him. Even without her makeup artfully applied it was hard not to notice that she was a looker.

“Uh, well, yeah, kind of. Look, pull some clothes on and get into the landing chair for your cabin, please,” he asked.

“Zee landing chair? Was I in zee shower dat long?” she asked, sounding sheepishly guilty.

“Uh, no, no, that’s not it. I’ll explain later, but I need to do a couple of violent maneuvers in a minute here, and I’m not sure the Inertial Compensators will take this.”

“H’Oh, I see. So, dis will be a bit h’of a roller-coaster, oui?” she questioned, trying to keep a brave face.

“A bit. So, yeah, you’ve got six minutes at most; get dressed and into the chair. Make sure you do up the six-point harness the same way as I strapped you in to leave Venus. Take your time and get it right, I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“H’Okay. I trust you, VAR,” Cosette replied with a nod.

“Thanks, CAT. There is a SnapComm link like this one at the chair, so call me back when you are ready,” Vic instructed.

“I will call as quick as I can.”

Before much more than half of the six minute window had gone by, she chimed him to let him know she was strapped into the chair. He was sort of surprised; even with him showing her how, it had taken her two tries to get it right when they left Venus.

He mentally gritted his teeth, hoped he had closed the door to the liquor cabinet the last time he opened it, and threw the ship into a stern-over-nose corkscrew that exploded into a twist-and-turn. He then tossed the throttles wide, and boosted wildly off in a random direction. Dropping the throttle he repeated the similarly violent action and boosted again. On the third time, Luna Traffic Control rang him over the public channel.

Spanish Train, this is LTC Sector Five, our telemetry on you is pretty screwed up right now. Interog: Is everything okay with you, over?”

Five, this is Train,” he answered as he put the ship through the twister again, “negative, I’m having, uh, attitude control issues.” You could argue that was not entirely a lie, he thought wryly. “It might be my pitch-yaw inertial management system is hosed. I was fine up until a few minutes ago, over.”

“Roger,Train, would you like to declare an emergency?”

Five, this is Train… I think that’s probably wise, I don’t want anyone else around me until I get this sorted out.”

“Roger Train, understood, stand-by. Break, break, break. Pan-pan, pan-pan, pan-pan. Emergency Traffic Exclusion Zone declared, time is one-five-three-seven Zulu. All vessels are required to avoid the area within three hundred kilometres of EMCSS Spanish Train until further notice. Failure to avoid this area will result in a fine and operations license points deduction. Pan-pan, pan-pan, pan-pan. Emergency Traffic Exclusion Zone declared, time was one-five-three-seven Zulu. Break, break, break. VIRPS-Mordred’s Gauntlet, be advised, your current calculated vector brings you well within the just declared ETEZ. Adjust your course immediately. Break, break, break. Spanish Train, this is LTC Sector Five, we are dispatching a Recovery Escort Vessel to your location now, please monitor this channel for further instructions, over.”

He mentally exhaled before answering. “Five, this is Train, roger, wilco, over.”

He immediately glanced behind him at the Mordred’s Gauntlet. After just a few moments, she crisply turned almost ninety degrees from her original vector, and started cruising away from the Spanish Train. The ruse had worked. It’s hard to sneak when everyone is staring at both you and where you are going.

Over the next ten minutes he kept making erratic maneuvers, each one progressively less violent and shorter in duration. He then called traffic control and let them know he had “worked out” the problem, it was likely he didn’t need the REV to meet him.

After clearing things with Traffic Control, he chimed Cosette. “Okay, it should be safe to leave your chair. Keep your ears sharp in case I call again.”

She looked slightly green and was noticeably relieved at the news. “You were not joking about zee 'violent maneuvers', VAR. Dat was very unpleasant,” she replied gamely.

“Sorry, CAT. Look, uh, not to cause you any alarm, but, um, I don’t suppose any of your close friends on Venus own a mercenary LLC do they?” he asked, trying to sound casual.

“What?  Non-non, VAR! Dat is hardly zee kind h’of crowd I would h'associate with,” she answered testily.

“Ok. That’s what I figured.”

“Den why would you ask such a reedeekuloose question?”

“Oh, because I’m pretty sure I just shook a bunch of Venusian Mercs off of a boarding intercept course with us,” he said flatly.

“Wait … what? I mean … what?” Cosette asked, her blue eyes wide with bewilderment.

“Apparently Venkeham isn’t willing to give up your research so easily CAT,” he answered, hoping his voice didn’t carry the worry he now felt.

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